Ask sales managers how they got into their management role, and the story always starts with them as an individual contributor who was killing their number. It makes sense. Success leads to promotions. At the same time, there’s widespread acknowledgement that the traits that make a good sales person may have nothing to do with the traits that make a good sales manager.
There are a lot of implications about how companies should think about promoting sales managers. But one critical question is what they should do to help the managers they have develop skills beyond the sales skills they already have. This matters, because a lot of sales management practices come from the success the person had before they were promoted.
Sales managers generally take a “do like me” approach to developing the teams. They go for ride-alongs or listen in on calls to observe how a person sells. They review emails to see how they prospect. They dispense wisdom based on what worked for them, or what they see working elsewhere. Remember, they were promoted because they know how to do it.
This approach has a few problems. One is that different sales styles can work. If the manager is focused on promoting their own style they risk conflict with those who approach sales differently. Many a highly productive sales person has changed jobs rather than put up with unwanted coaching.
The other problem is that the manager may be blind to many of the things that could make sales people more productive. For example, if the manager was successful, but never used the CRM, then they aren’t likely to see the CRM as something critical for sales success. If the manager is naturally charismatic, they might not be able to coach on building rapport.
The change that managers need to make when they become managers is to start viewing themselves as more than just the subject matter expert who “knows how it’s done.” The trick for first line managers is to find the right balance between the two tools that all sales organization use.
On the one hand, sales organizations often use hard number metrics like calls placed, emails sent, or dollars in pipeline. These metrics are hard to know what to do with, as they generally lead to more questions, like “Should that deal be in the pipeline?” or “Why was the call count where it was?” Middle managers tend to curate these statistics for their own managers, while inspecting their teams to make sure they understand what went into the number.
On the other hand, when a sales person is struggling, managers do a deep dive with the “do as I do” sales coaching approach. This can work if the problem is something the manager can spot and is good at doing themselves. But if that isn’t the case, managers may not be able to help that person get to where they need to be.
The best managers are those who find the middle ground between hard numbers and soft coaching. They can coach people on developing habits and practices that lead to success. They can understand engagement levels and the cadence of the sales process. They can understand what causes opportunities to slow down, and what steps might speed them up. Most importantly, they find ways to coach each person on the team with what that person needs to improve, rather than just looking for outliers who are struggling.
It may be that promoting the best sales people to management is the right way to build that front line team. Certainly being successful at sales indicates attributes that make people successful in general. But once those people are promoted, it’s important to help them understand that they’re playing a whole new game, and they need to adapt.
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